Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #170: You Angel You

I'm not going to lie - there was a certain amount of temptation to combine this post with "Never Say Goodbye", since both songs are basically the most straightforward love songs on the album (along with "On A Night Like This"), and writing about straightforward love songs is not always the easiest business. This is not to say that I don't think this is a good song; "dummy" lyrics or no, the song has a pleasant MOR sheen to it (especially the opening, with Robertson's oh-so-70's guitar tone soloing next to Hudson's organ stabs) and Dylan puts as much effort into the song as you could reasonably ask for. And hey, this song ended up on Biograph, so it must have stayed with Bob for a while, to the point where he'd make it part of that most definitive (at the time; now kind of outdated) profile of himself up to that point. Had Dylan chosen to pluck any singles from this album (I'd always thought it was strange that he didn't; one would think that "Forever Young" might have both sold well on its own and helped move a few more copies of the album proper), this song would've been a fine, maybe even natural choice.

That, I should note, is not meant to be an insult on my part. Were I the type that would attempt to come up with or espouse offbeat theories about Dylan's music (*cough*), I might suggest the possibility that our man Bob is actually making a parody of the songs that he heard on the radio leading up to this album, his own version of a Todd Rundgren song or something ("if this is love, then gimme more/And more and more and more", et. al.), the sort of lark that Frank Zappa was ever so fond of throughout his entire career. And that might make a bit more sense if the rest of the album was full of that kind of musical wink to the audience, but Bob plays it entirely straightforward throughout, and I have no doubt that he wrote this song in all seriousness (and, one would have to assume, about his wife), and knowing that he's being totally sincere actually helps to improve the song. Dylan is no particular stranger to parody, anyway, and I think if that's what he'd been going for here it would have been a bit more obvious.

Quite frankly, it's the sincerity of this song (and of a great deal of this album) that would have made this work as a radio single; AM/FM radio is not really the domain of subtlety, experimentation, or a lot of the qualities we find in the greatest of music (until it's reached the point where it can be properly/annoyingly deemed "classic" rock - after all, the chords that the Beatles played and Dylan found "outrageous" back in the 60s are essential parts of rock DNA in 2010). Even a band like Radiohead, which most of us would consider a progressive-thinking band, recently scored rock radio success with "Bodysnatchers", by far the most traditionally "rock" and least subtle song on In Rainbows. That isn't the worst thing in the world - in general, unless you have Sirius/XM, you're not LOOKING for subtlety or experimentation on the radio, but something you can bob your head and maybe sing along to in the car or at the office or wherever people listen to the radio these days. It's kind of the same thing with the music played at clubs (which I have had experience with the past year or so, somewhat unfortunately) - nobody goes to clubs to hear real cutting edge shit, but to hear something with a beat that they can dance to. It's the nature of the beast.

"You Angel You", with its well-produced glossiness (there really isn't a way I can say that without making it sound like an insult, but it's a compliment in this case, trust me), simplistic lyrics about love, and a catchy melody (even that "gimme more" middle eight has a way of sticking in your head), certainly fits the bill of "song you could tap your foot to on the radio". And, as much as I might bag on most popular music, there is most certainly a time and a place for music like that. Most of all, it had a place on the album from which it comes, serving both as an example of the general aesthetic of the album (some good friends getting together to play some fun songs) and a palate-cleanser after the acidic bite of "Dirge". That, to me, is what really makes the song worth its existence - Planet Waves, for the most part, is a fun album to listen to, and "You Angel You" helps make it fun.
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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #169: Dirge

Easily one of Dylan's bleakest tracks in his entire catalog, "Dirge" is a song that not only seems rather decidedly out of place on Planet Waves, but something that seems out of place in Dylan's 1970s output; really, maybe out of place in his output after the motorcycle crash (up to that point, of course). I'm quite certain I will be corrected if I'm missing something, but just about everything between the Basement Tapes and 1974 had been lighter in tone (certainly Nashville Skyline, and the notoriously "friendly" Self Portrait spring to mind), and one could have been justified in imagining that the Dylan who wrote "Positively 4th Street" and other such rapier-brandishing classics had grown up, properly matured, and had left all that poison-pen business behind. This makes "Dirge" all the more fascinating, mainly because there really hasn't been precedent for a song like this after the crash (and certainly not on Planet Waves up to that point - even "Going Going Gone" has more of a tone of resignation than anything else) and because Dylan has always had a way of channeling invective into something poetic (that line about paying the price of solitude is really fantastic, isn't it?). That's not a bad talent to have.

In cursory searching for theories and meanings behind this song, I've seen people suggest that the song is about drug addiction (the bit about going down suicide road), Joan Baez (which seems rather unlikely, unless Dylan had a burst of nostalgia listening to all those songs he'd written about her in the 60s and decided to crank out another missive just for old time's sake), Dylan renouncing his status as Voice of a Generation (the entire third verse - I'll get to that in a moment), and, of course, his deteriorating relationship with his wife. Given that in a short period of time he would no longer be married, one has to feel that this is the most likely explanation; a trial run for the real bitterness that we'd get one album later. Even without getting into any sort of specifics about what they shared and their children and so on, you can really easily get the vibe that Dylan's singing about his wife, or at least some woman he feels the need to spit this sort of acid at.

The reason that this might not totally be the case is that - well, have you heard the rest of Planet Waves? The general tone of the album itself is much more genial than this song is, I would say the majority of the songs deal more with love than anything else (for example, the song in the next post), and then we have "Wedding Song", the weird sort of yin to this song's yang, a track that trucks in just as much naked emotion as this one but channels it into a song of undying devotion (rather than undying despair and anger). Now, certainly one could suggest that this song is on here precisely for the yin and yang effect, giving what would otherwise be an album of quiet, gentle emotion along the lines of New Morning an added bite it would not otherwise have, and I would be inclined to agree with you. But I don't think that you could make the suggestion that somehow "Dirge" is more in line with Dylan's thoughts at the time than anything else on the album (as one could suggest, given what ultimately happened), as though all the declarations of love and such were just a cover for how Bob was really feeling. That, to me, seems rather too simplistic, and I generally try not to think of Dylan's in simplistic terms.

So what, then, about the idea that this song is really about Dylan giving up his throne? The crux of that particular argument lies in the third verse, where Dylan sings about "songs of freedom and man forever stripped", and concludes that it's "all for a moment's glory, and it's a dirty, rotten shame"; there's also the last verse's bit about singing "your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine", which isn't quite as suggestive, but who knows, right? It's an interesting idea - Dylan couching his disgust with his life as Sixties Idol and his renunciation thereof as some sort of romantic kiss-off sounds a lot like something he would do. However, I don't see that this theory can stand, and there are at least two reasons why. The first is that there are only a few isolated lines that you can really suggest have to do with Dylan and his reputation renunciation; would anybody pick out the "you used to ride a chrome horse" line from "Like A Rolling Stone" and suggest the song is really about Dylan telling his equestrian instructor to piss off? The second, and more poignant reason for me, is that Dylan didn't need to write a song about renouncing the role thrust upon him - his actions since 1966 had more or less done that for him. If Self Portrait hadn't made it clear that he was no longer going to be shackled by his past, what else would? His feelings didn't need to be made over and over again.

So, ultimately, what we have left is another song by Bob that defies easy analysis (even when the analysis seems like it shouldn't be all that hard - seriously, how can this NOT be about Bob and Sara?), made all the more interesting by the time period that Dylan wrote it in. There's still plenty to chew on here, both from the lyrical standpoint (that business about Lower Broadway - maybe Dylan's talking about the place where he got his drugs???) and the recording standpoint (this was the last song cut on the album, recorded fast like Bob usually does things - maybe he was singing about feelings that had just come up?), but in the end it's hard not to feel frustrated if you're trying to look for something deeper in this song. Ultimately, what we have is Dylan at his most pained and emotional, and the song is worth hearing for that alone.
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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bob Dylan Songs #167-168: Forever Young

Author's note: Hopefully nobody will feel too cheated if I combine both the well-known version of "Forever Young" and the up-tempo second version last heard in Pepsi commercials into one post. As for the second version, I'll offer my thoughts in Twitter length: Pretty good version, obvious bone thrown to more rock-oriented folk, can't hold a candle to the original. Next!

So I'm not really sure if this has ever been or currently is a debate, but "Forever Young" is basically the best song on Planet Waves, one of the best songs Dylan's ever recorded (top 10 at least, maybe top 5 depending on whether or not you're actually a parent), and a song so good that you could actually posit that this is Dylan's finest song without getting weird stares (that doesn't mean that it IS, but you wouldn't be lambasted over it, if you know what I mean). Much like how I'd described "Like A Rolling Stone" in my entry for it somewhere around the Ming dynasty, "Forever Young" (the first version - let's not get silly here) is one of those songs that has been burned in our consciousness in a way where it's impossible to imagine it in any other form - Bob surely didn't have this whole song pop out of his brain fully formed, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had, y'know? Everything about the released master take, from Robertson's gentle solos to the harmonica stabs throughout and to Dylan's incredible vocal performance, maybe the greatest of his career ("Something There Is About You" is a personal favorite, but I will fully admit that this performance here blows it out of the water), is so inch-perfect that every time I listen to the track it takes all my, erm, inherent manliness to not just weep at how amazing the track is.

There is a story on the Wikipedia page for Planet Waves about how this song was going to be left off the album because one of Dylan's childhood friends had brought a girl in the studio and she'd goofed on him about become a big old softie in his old age (the ripe old age of 32, but I digress), so Dylan decided that he didn't want the song to be heard. Now, I'm pretty glad I don't live in the parallel universe where Bob hadn't eventually listened to the voice of reason and stuck this song on the album after all, but suffice to say that if Bob had thrown the song into the vaults, not only would this instantly become the greatest song Bob never officially released (snatching the crown away from "Blind Willie McTell"), but - and I'm not sure how else to say this - I think I would actually have liked Bob less if he hadn't recorded the song. I mean, this is purely hypothetical of course, but let's think about this. I think we're all okay with Bob having consigned "Farewell, Angelina" and "Series of Dreams" and, yes, "Mama, You Been On My Mind" to the vaults - they are all great songs, sure, but Bob has surely built up enough goodwill to let those omissions slide. But a song like "Forever Young"? If any other person recorded that song, could they ever possibly say "meh, not my A game" and toss the song aside? How could you ever possibly live with yourself? It would have been the greatest mistake of Bob's career (and he's had a few); that, I think, says a lot about this song.

Okay, so. I think it would be safe to say that, like anywhere between 99-100% of Bob's songs, the reason that people love this one so much is because the lyrics are so incredible, as beautiful and heart-wrenching a summation of the parenting experience as you could ever hope to find. And I think that we can also agree that, in terms of just simple and direct songwriting, this might be as simple and direct as Bob ever got in his entire career outside of Nashville Skyline (John Wesley Harding is pared-down, but occasionally veered on the cryptic side; perhaps you could argue for "Wiggle Wiggle", but that's an argument I urge you not to make). In fact, the main argument a person could make against this song, if they so chose/were lacking human emotion, would be to point out that the lyrics occasionally veer towards a mawkish bent, the sort that might turn off a listener. There might be a point there - after all, "may you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong" is a little too simple and direct, y'know? Most Dylan fans have always thought of the man as a poet; it can be a bit uncomfortable when said poet starts writing numbers a little too close to something out of his diary. Getting soft in his old age, right?

Now, you could certainly pen any number of responses full of spluttering outrage to that bit of drivel, but my own personal response would be rather more measured, as well as my own personal feelings as to why I think the song is a) so amazing and b) has the staying power that it does (apologies in advance if this seems too obvious, but sometimes obvious things need to be written about). Personally, what I think makes "Forever Young" the song that it is is the fact that the lyrics ARE so simple and direct. As previously mentioned in my award-winning post for "Mama, You Been On My Mind"*, a great deal of art has been created in order for us as human beings to allow us to properly understand the Great Issues of Life that we otherwise have trouble understanding, stuff like love and death and infinity and all that fooferaw. Now, that's not to say that the issues themselves can't be simple, of course - it's that there's so much stuff that gets in between the cracks and gums up the works of those issues that we have trouble wrapping our heads around. And I would say that the process of caring for children and watching them grow qualifies on both counts - we understand all this on a gut level, but when you introduce stuff like, say, the entire world into the mix, things can become a bit complicated.

*note: this post did not win any awards

And, thus, we get "Forever Young", a song that so brilliantly and neatly takes something incredibly massive and unwieldy and makes it something simple and direct, a song that both engages our brain and our heart in equally powerful ways. Would this song have possibly been improved with the dense allusions and wordplay of 60s Bob, or even BOTT Bob? I can't imagine that possibly could be true. A parent might not be able to think of his experiences with his children in a complex song-story or even through the filter of something like "Something There Is About You" - but a parent will surely understand and identify with a line like "may your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung/and may you stay forever young". And that is how we understand who, and what, we are.
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Bob Dylan Song #166: Something There Is About You

On an album that features the debut of my favorite period for Bob Dylan's singing voice, this song stands as a personal favorite in terms of just hearing Bob sing. I'm not the sort of person that feels any particular need to make excuses for Bob's singing style, even his present day voice (which, like it or not, is a voice that a person not already part of the Dylan club is probably going to have trouble with) - his reputation lies mainly on his songwriting, he was "blessed" with a gritty voice that could hit the notes but not too much else, and he made the very best of it for a very long time (until about 1977, when he blew it out trying to overexert himself for the ill-advised 1978 world tour - but hey, at least we got Live at the Budokan out of it, right? Right?), which is about all you can ask for. But when Dylan decides he's up for a vocal performance, he can deliver - the quintessential example being the Montreal '75 performance of "Isis", where he turns up the vocals to 11 in order to match the RTR's dramatic performance. And this song is another example, at least for me, as Bob hits all the right notes, adds some nice flourishes at the end of every verse, and sounds like he's giving the metaphorical 110% all throughout. The Band gives a sympathetic backing, and the result is another strong tune.

Listening to this song, one could very easily marvel at just how well Dylan crafts even the most straightforward of love songs (how many people would think to describe a ghost as "something that used to be/something that's crossed over from another century?"), pulling out brilliant turns of phrase like "the phantoms of my youth" and wrapping it around a simple yet earworm-ready melody. One could, I imagine, also marvel (and chuckle) at how Bob devotes half a verse to telling the object of his desire "hey, I COULD say I won't sleep around, but that's a bit much" (yes, he says it a bit more eloquently, but I think I got the gist of what he was shooting for), both a sign of his humanity and of his wry, puckish humor. Whenever I listen to this song, though, I now think about that great second verse, the one with "phantoms of my youth" in it, and the one where, right out of nowhere, he starts singing about his childhood in Minnesota, a glimpse into his past that we very, very rarely ever got out of him (I forget if Danny Lopez is a real person, and I can only hope one of you intrepid readers will remind me, as my copy of Behind the Shades has long since gone AWOL). Considering that there were probably still people back then that thought Bob grew up in New York City (so easily identifiable is he with both the city and the state), it must have been a shock to hear Bob going on about how this woman has reminded him of a past that, apparently, he just can't seem to shake.

So much of our collective cultural work has dealt with the notion of running away from your past and from where you came from, whether it's because you had a terrible childhood or because you're a rich kid who wanted to make something of yourself or whatever, and yet for the most part Bob has resisted bringing that into his own work. It's probably because he got his fill of it telling all those tall tales in his early years, or just as likely because his actual upbringing was really not all that particularly bad, or (this is probably it) because it would run counter to his ever-present mystique - either way, Bob has generally left those autobiographical elements out of his songwriting. Of course, the other autobiographical elements - i.e. his love life - have been present more or less since day dot, but that sort of thing tends to fuel your songwriting if you've already got the talent for songwriting. That's not always the case with your upbringing (unless you're Springsteen or somebody); often the past is meant to be just that.

And that's what makes that sudden, odd little peek into Dylan's past life all the more interesting and exciting. So deep is Dylan into his "I'm making (x) up to you, Sara" period (the apotheosis being "Wedding Song") that he forgets himself for a moment here, allowing a peek at young Robert Zimmerman hiding behind the Bob Dylan mask. And who knows, maybe Bob had it in mind all along to throw that in there, sort of a reminder to everybody of where he came from and what it meant to have those memories come rushing back, and what kind of woman it would have to be to dig through the layers of past history and Greenwich Village nights and concerts in Dublin with The Hawks and hanging out with Johnny Cash to reach the former Elston Gunn underneath it all. I like to think that Bob just had his guard down, just for that moment, and we got to see something we very rarely see. It's moments like that that can make a fan, well, a fan.
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Bob Dylan Song #165: Hazel

Given that most of this post will be dedicated to The Last Waltz (don't worry, there will be some Dylan-related content), I might as well get my feelings about "Hazel" out of the way here. I like the song just fine (even though Dylan spends the middle eight groping around for the proper vocal key), and I think of it as a fine piece of the album's overall aesthetic, but it's not particularly a song that I would hold up as a classic or anything. To be honest, It makes me think more of the kind of song Dylan might have heard on WABC or something in the '70s and decided "hey, I'm gonna give that a shot"; couldn't you just imagine this song sandwiched between "Same Old Song and Dance" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" during some imaginary DJ's 7-11 shift as he blathers on about how you can get tickets at your local YMCA for the Neil Young show? Even the lyrics kind of leave something to be desired ("ooh, just a touch of your love", indeed), which is a slight disappointment considering how accomplished the songwriting on this album is otherwise. Maybe I'm making too much of this song - I can't imagine Dylan and the Band imagined this song to be much more than a trifle anyway - so I'll just move on.

Now, then. The Last Waltz is interesting for any number of reasons, a few of which I'll list here - Scorcese directing at the height of his drug addictions (but not at the height of his fame - his reputation at the time basically rested on Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, which are two incredible pillars to rest a reputation on, but still); trying to figure out which of the musicians on stage was the most coked-up (one would imagine Neil Young takes that prize, although sadly you never do see that massive chunk of cocaine stuck in his nostril); seeing Neil Diamond back when he had any cultural relevance; and, yes, Dylan's last collaboration with The Band, with two Planet Waves songs (including this one, a song choice I will go to my grave not understanding) and two songs from the legendary 1966 tour serving as the mini-setlist. That The Last Waltz is a movie that has to be seen is not much in doubt (Allen Toussaint's horn arrangements take the songs to a whole other level, and it's SCORCESE directing, for God's sake); what The Last Waltz actually means is something else entirely.

I imagine that if you polled any number of casual music fans, even fans of rock music, about what the first thing is that they would think of when they think of The Band, The Last Waltz would surely top the list (either that, "The Weight", or Music From Big Pink, I'd guess). And that's not without good reason, obviously - given its status as The Band's (supposed) retirement, the heavy hitters that guest starred, the man who directed the documentary, and the time period that it was made (the mid-70s, with the excesses of rock at their apex before punk music came along to change a thing or two - I'd say "change everything" but that is simply not true), it's probably the most obvious choice. But here's the thing - The Last Waltz is not only way more famous than The Band itself actually is (if that makes sense), it also makes The Band seem like a more popular band than they ever had been during their career. After all, this is a band with one platinum album, two gold albums, and one Top 5 and one Top 10 album - a great haul by most measures of the imagination, but certainly not what you'd expect for a band deserving of that lovingly crafted a documentary, right? Even their #1 album was a collaboration with a more famous artist, and by their 3rd album they'd pretty much peaked as a popular force. And yet The Band is still fondly remembered by many, and probably as a bigger band then they ever were at their peak. That has to be because of The Last Waltz, right?

Perception, especially perception after the fact, has always been a funny thing. Think of The Sex Pistols, a group as cobbled together as any number of boy bands, yet held by many even today as the pinnacle of what punk music is/was supposed to mean. Or think of Sylvia Plath, whose most well-known work was published after her death and who never lived to reap the rewards of The Bell Jar, yet who has a critical reputation that far outstrips her sales or the regard she had during her lifetime (kinda like The Band, actually). We never know what it is that will change our legacy, let alone the legacy of famous artists; sometimes only one thing can completely change a legacy, either for the better or worse. It is the great artists, ultimately, that can resist that sort of legacy-shifter, those that have built a body of work so great and massive that ultimately nothing short of something truly awful can change the public's perception. After all, not too long ago the same Mr. Scorcese filmed a documentary about the first part of Bob Dylan's career (with a lucid and thoughtful Bob providing an interview - wonder how many directors he'd have done THAT for?), a documentary that surely would have done for most artists what The Last Waltz has done for The Band, and yet it serves mainly as an interesting adjunct to Bob's career, a long and interesting way to tell us something we most likely already knew. That, to me, is the mark of Dylan's staying power - his work is so strong it even resists boosts to its credibility.
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Bob Dylan Song #164: Tough Mama

If choosing a song that's most emblematic of the style of Planet Waves, I think I would go with "Tough Mama". Everything that you can find throughout the rest of the album is here - the Band's rough-and-tumble playing style (the guitar, in particular, comes flying at you - it sounds like something out of a Jim Croce track, which might very well have been the point); Dylan's raw, more raunchy singing voice; somewhat cryptic lyrics in the vein of his 60s work (without actually sounding like his 60s work - a pretty neat trick, that); and, ostensibly, lyrics about Sara Lowndes. The sum result of that, as you would probably expect, is a pretty damn fantastic song, certainly one that I find myself returning to whenever I pull this album out for a test run. In fact, back in the days when I was obsessively collecting Dylan bootlegs, I would often single out shows that had this song on it (more on that in a moment). I can't really tell you why this song has stuck with me for so long; then again, I'd have difficulty saying that about most of my favorite songs.

What I've always enjoyed about the lyrics of this song is that, to me at least, they serve as a pure example of Dylan's artistic progress during his third peak as a songwriter, a synthesis of his dizzying ability to harness the English language and his equally dizzying ability to mine the unconsciousness of our American psyche and draw from it to make art. For me, the closest analogue to this song is "Isis", which tells more of a story than the wandering verses of "Tough Mama", but employs the same mythical, dreamlike imagery (compare "Jack the Cowboy went up north" to "she was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise") to give the song a character different from much of what Dylan had written before. If you want to take things to more of an extreme, one might suggest that "Tough Mama" is the prologue to the epic that is "Isis", where the narrator offers a golden ring and states that it's his duty to take her to "the field where the flowers bloom" - that sounds like a meadow to me. Every time I hear this song I think about the heady rush that love brings, and every time I think of "Isis" I think about the extreme lengths one will go to in order to keep that love (or, in some cases, to save failing love). It's not often that one can link songs like that in any artist's catalog, but whenever you can it certainly enriches the listening experience.

Of course, the stuff of myth is one thing, but Dylan's real life was already beginning to intrude on his songwriting, and it's pretty tempting to read into a song like this and attempt to pick out elements that have to do with what was going on with Bob at this time in his life. Is he the Lone Wolf that "went out drinking - but that was over pretty fast"? (After all, once Bob hit the road again after his divorce, especially during both RTRs, the drinking would return with a vengeance.) What exactly does Dylan mean when he says he "stood alone upon the ridge, and all [he] did was watch"? Is he singing about himself when he says "I gained some recognition, but I lost my appetite" (surely a reference to his wilderness years)? Maybe that's why people like Planet Waves as much as they do - Dylan fans always seem to be hankering to get some songs we could go over with a fine tooth comb again, another round of music's greatest parlor game (name me three other artists that have written - or theoretically written - as much about themselves in their music as Bob has). For many of us, THAT is what enriches the listening experience, and I certainly would not begrudge anybody that.

I mentioned earlier about how I collected bootlegs that featured this song for a while (which was a good thing for my listening experience, as not only does it appear on much of the earlier - and superior - '74 setlists, but also on many of his '98 shows, which I've always felt was one of his best touring years); it's not a song that's so rare that you'd want to break your back looking for it (like, say, "Romance in Durango" in its one lone non-RTR appearance), but it's just rare enough that having the song appear on the setlist lends a show a cache that "All Along The Watchtower" simply does not anymore. On top of that, there's something that I just sort of enjoy about Dylan breaking that song out, one that presumably the majority of his listening audience has no particular regard for. However, I have wondered why it is that Dylan gives this song its occasional workout, far more so than any other song on here except for "Forever Young" (then again, I'm more curious why Dylan doesn't play more songs off here anyway - how many major artists virtually ignore one of their #1 albums on stage???). It's a good song, sure, but is it really that much better than "Going Going Gone" or "Something There Is About You"?

I wrote about the nature of Dylan playing and not playing his songs on stage in my "Temporary Like Achilles" post, and this song serves as an antithesis to my theory about "Temporary", even though the aesthetic created by Planet Waves is arguably just as strong as the one on Blonde on Blonde. The thing about Blonde on Blonde is that it's such a special case, at least in my opinion, because it so recognizably has its aesthetic, because the album as a whole has settled into myth and legend the way few, if any of his other albums have (certainly none of his other 60s albums, maybe Blood on the Tracks, definitely Under the Red Sky - just wanted to see if you were paying attention), and it makes it harder to draw out the lesser-known songs the same way you can draw out the classics from there. Planet Waves doesn't really have that problem, and so it's probably not that big a deal for Bob to trot out this song or "Hazel" every once in a while. And I, personally, am thankful that he does.
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #163: Going Going Gone

This has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs; I won't even bother using the "sneaky favorite" appellation that I've used elsewhere on this blog. To me, it contains one of the best arrangements on the entire Planet Waves album (that weirdly stuttering Robertson guitar riff that kicks the song off will always be burned in my memory), as well as some of the best lyrics - a bitter Dylan is quite often the optimal Dylan (as we will see not too far from now, of course). Sure, the words to the song may seem slight by comparison to something like "Something There Is About You", but that's what gives it that extra dramatic edge, in my opinion. Even the middle eight, the "Grandma said" part that might seem at first to be at odds with the rest of the track, adds an extra dimension to the darker, angrier verses, a ray of sunshine poking through the clouds. There's a reason the song pops up all throughout the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue - it's a song about leaving love behind, and Dylan in 1976 was all about leaving love behind, in the nastiest and most self-destructive form possible.

It's a testament to the somewhat schizophrenic nature of this album that Dylan chose to place this song, so full of barely contained rage and bile and hurt (it peeks out whenever he draws out words like "whaaaaaaaaat happens next", but is otherwise very tightly contained), right after the freewheelin' good time jamboree of "On A Night Like This", immediately to be followed by the equally fun good time jamboree that is "Tough Mama". Sequencing is always a tricky business to begin with, but it's kind of interesting to have those two bouncy, jaunty rockers sandwiching one of Dylan's weariest and bitterest songs. As I wrote in the last post, this is an album of emotions, and one thing emotions tend to not be is particularly consistent. I kind of like that Bob's willing to veer from one emotional pole to the next in the span of three songs.

The always informative, ever-helpful Dylanchords website has compiled a selection of altered lyrics to this song from live performances on the two tours it appeared on (and why it appeared in the Budokan tour setlists is anybody's guess - with RTR II it makes a lot more sense), and you can see just how much of a vehicle for Bob's anger this song became whenever he performed it in front of a live audience. There's the Fort Worth 1976 version, with the sly dig at Joan Baez and the rather enlightening change of "don't you and your one true love ever part" to "don't you and your life-long dream ever part", a wry re-statement of Bob's priorities at that particular time (one imagines that Bob would rather cut off a pinkie finger than stop being a musician, which I would assume is more or less his own life-long dream). There's the Budokan version, which transforms the lyrics into a conversation in which the narrator beseeches some anonymous woman to not "get too close/to make me change my mind", which speaks to all sorts of issues that I'm not accredited enough to properly delve into. And then there's the July 4th Paris version, which moves said conversation into the context of an adulterous relationship ("I'm gonna go back to your woman/You can go back to your man"). It's almost astonishing just how much Bob reveals in these lyrics without having explicitly revealed anything - the sleight of hand he's been a master at performing, writ large.

And, it should be said, a sleight of hand that works to the song's detriment. For me, at least, what gives the song its emotional power are both its coiled-spring arrangement, all pent-up energy and restraint that only really gains release during the middle eight, and the extremely direct lyrics, as spare and stripped-down as anything on John Wesley Harding. One great side of Dylan's songwriting - in fact, one of the few things that has stuck with him throughout his entire career - is his ability to utilize the idea of "less is more", from the simple tale of woe in "Don't Think Twice" to the weary grit of "Love Sick", and "Going Going Gone" is one of his masterpieces of that formula. It almost does the song a disservice to decide "well, maybe more is more", and to take that framework and try to jam into it what could already be read between the lines. It's quite understandable, of course - the Dylan of 1976-1978 was not in what you would particularly call an optimal mental place - but it's still rather jarring nonetheless to have Bob so cavalierly sing about being treated like a clown and feeling so dissatisfied. Perhaps that's just me.

There will be plenty of time down the line to try and get more in-depth into what was going on with Dylan during that period of his life, arguably one of the most crucial in his entire career (he entered 1976 as one of the biggest musicians in the world - from a commercial standpoint, no less - and exited 1978 having made a decision that would stun just about everybody who heard it); suffice it to say that if Dylan ever really had what recovering addicts call a "bottom", it very well could have been during that time. "Going Going Gone", written a few years before that period, is a definite foreshadowing of that frame of mind, as indeed are a few other songs on Planet Waves. But what sets the album version of this song apart is that it's Dylan's emotions tightly reined in by his amazing songwriting instincts, allowing us the tiniest glimpse into his psyche without laying it bare. The live versions of this song are Dylan's id running amok, the musical equivalent of walking down the street wearing a trenchcoat and opening it to random passersby. That's an ugly image, to be sure - but Bob was in an ugly frame of mind.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #162: On A Night Like This

Author's note: Obvious apologies for a lack of updates. If nothing else, I've learned that I probably have no place in a courtroom in a speaking/debating capacity. But I probably already knew that.


If you go back and take a look at the first ever #1 albums for the big-time artists of the 1960s - hell, maybe even the big-time artists of musical history - you are going to find a hell of a lot of really, really famous albums. Meet the Beatles!, Kid A, Electric Ladyland, Led Zeppelin II - we're often talking about records that just about any serious fan of music has heard of, and most casual fans of music have heard of as well. This isn't to say that Billboard chart positions are going to tie into what makes a great album, of course; I would certainly hope that I've made my feelings about that known at some point on this here blog. But what I'd like to think I'm getting at here is that, for the upper echelon of musicians and bands that have made any sort of impact on our musical experience, their first album to reach the toppermost of the poppermost is going to be pretty darn well known.

Which, as you might expect, brings me to Planet Waves. Now, we all know that Dylan has never been and probably never will be the kind of artist that you tend to associate with commercial success. His run in the 1960s, with the benefit of hindsight (WTBOH for short), seemed like a by-product of the times (not that the music isn't absolutely extraordinary, but c'mon - people were talking about how strange "Like A Rolling Stone" sounded being played on WABC BACK THEN), his run in the 1970s (WTBOH) seemed like a weird by-product of the whole nostalgia kick that made Tour '74 such an astonishing box office hit, and his current run of top-selling albums is almost certainly a by-product of his large and long-lasting fanbase simply sweeping him to the top of the charts (one also wonders if his current core audience is the type that tends to keep buying albums in the stores anyway, but that's a discussion for another day). And it seems kind of fitting, then, that the first time Dylan ever brought home a #1 album was both part of that 70s nostalgia (as befitting an album collaborated with The Band, who had surely peaked as a commercial outfit by then but still had that 1966 cache) and an album that has more or less receded into history, even for Dylan fans. It didn't help that Planet Waves basically sank like a stone upon release, selling one-sixth of its total for 1974 after advance sales. For most people, it's something of an afterthought, Dylan testing his brakes before taking off with the mid-70s double shot that reestablished him as an Artist of Note.

I personally find this to be unfair. While I'd probably agree that it's the lesser of the Seventies Trilogy, much like the lesser of the Sixties Trilogy (Bringing It All Back Home), Planet Waves manages to both be a bridge to creative nirvana and a pretty damn good album in its own right, a collection of songs that manages to stand on its own merits. "Forever Young", of course, is probably everybody's favorite here (and rightly so), but any number of tracks stand up with what Dylan did with the rest of his decade - "Something There Is About You", "Going, Going, Gone", and the astoundingly underrated "Tough Mama", one of Dylan's best pure rock songs. In fact, what makes Planet Waves such an anomaly to me is that it's one of the few albums where Dylan's just concentrating on making a straight-up rock album, one that has songs that were MEANT to be played on WABC. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with The Band - and who knows, the realization that he was pumping out quality songs again probably got Bob all fired up to crank out some jams, relatively speaking.

If there IS one way that this album could be seen as a test run for anything, it's (oddly enough) the combination of naked emotional outpouring and carefully concealed storytelling that makes Blood on the Tracks the incredible masterpiece that it is (what, did you think I was going to say it's because of the arrangements?). Dylan hadn't quite reached the same virtuoso level at this point (it would come through his therapy sessions and, yes, from the divorce), but his slow but sure re-acquaintance with his muse (and, yes, his failing marriage) had obviously given him a boost that he had been lacking from the recording of Nashville Skyline up to that point. And there's a great deal of emotion to be found here - "Dirge", obviously, but there's also the slightly mawkish yet remarkably real sentiment of "Wedding Song", the bitterness behind "Going, Going, Gone", and (of course) "Forever Young", a song so good I wish I was Bob's kid simply so that I could say it was written about me. Dylan, by tapping into what made him tick and what was important to him, had gotten back into his groove, and it was only upwards from there.


"On A Night Like This", the opener for Planet Waves, tends to remind me about "To Be Alone With You", a song that I consider to be the actual opener for Nashville Skyline (as the songs that precede it are a lark of an instrumental and a duet with Johnny Cash on a cover of Bob's own tune). For one thing, it's a joy to listen to musically, The Band getting to work whipping up their own brand of good time jamboree fun (in fact, the arrangement gets a little TOO busy at times, but that's part of the fun) and Bob blasting out harmonica at the end with as much abandon as he's ever put into a harmonica solo. If nothing else, you get the feeling right off the bat that this is going to be a different kind of Dylan album, and that we're getting ready for something different yet again. Also, much like "To Be Alone With You", Bob weaves together an enthusiastic ode to spending some quality solo time with the missus in his life, sounding almost giddy in his picture painting of the evening that lies ahead. As something of a trailer for what's to come on the album, both songs work remarkably well.

And, one imagines, a critic of this album could simply dismiss this song as "slight", the same way that people have derided "To Be Alone With You" (and, it should be said, the album that song happens to be on as well) as slight. One can surely see the rationale behind that - after all, there's nothing too particularly exciting about a song that describes two people in a cabin in the woods on a snowy night, getting to know each other better (both in the intellectual and, presumably, the Biblical senses), and we've come to expect so much more from our man Bob, haven't we? This is, after all, the man that wrote all those songs with all those crazy lyrics, the man who expanded the vocabulary that rock songs could actually use, and we're getting stuff like "hold on to me, pretty miss/say you'll never go astray", and so on. And even if you discount the classics Bob had written before, listening to this song might give the impression that Bob banged this sucker out in about 30 minutes, scribbling down some words while waiting for The Band to show up at the studio. We expect better, no?

And, much like the reason I like Nashville Skyline the way that I do, I find myself just shaking my head at the rhetorical argument I just dreamed up one paragraph ago and may not actually exist (though I would bet it has been advanced once or twice). Perhaps it doesn't scan quite as well when you're listening to the album for the very first time, the reason "On A Night Like This" succeeds, both on its own and in the context of Planet Waves, is because it gives us one particular aspect of what it means to be in love, and puts it in exactly the kind of musical spirit that one might reasonably expect. After all, who amongst us (especially the married readers of this blog, I would suggest) hasn't been excited about a night alone with their significant other, away from the kids and from bills and from doing the dishes and laundry and all the other crap that comes with life in these here United States, just you two and a pot of coffee and a crackling fire in the fireplace to keep you company? And if you WERE to write a song, as Bob has, about that kind of experience, wouldn't you want it to be full of unencumbered, simplistic joy, both in the lyrics and in the spirited band (excuse me, Band) accompaniment? I think I would.

In the context of the album, as well, "On A Night Like This" serves a purpose - just one side of the die we call love (poetic, isn't it?). With the vicious tongue-lashing of "Dirge", the marvel and wonder of "Something There Is About You", and the almost overwhelming devotion of "Wedding Song", Dylan gives us many different sides to what it means to be committed emotionally to another human being (even more so than Blood on the Tracks, which trucks in a more resigned form of showing us what love is all about), and "On A Night Like This" captures the more joyful, spontaneous side of that emotion. Not only that, but it's a hell of a lot of fun to listen to as well, which probably explains why it got the honor of pole position on what was considered to be Bob's first real "comeback" album of his career. It may not be "Love Minus Zero/No Limit", but it doesn't have to be, and that's a good thing indeed.
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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #161: Knockin' On Heaven's Door

It still kind of amazes me, nearly forty years after this song's release, just how damned literal the lyrics to this song are; that this song became a considerable hit for numerous artists amazes me even further. If you listen to the song in the context of the film the lyrics work perfectly well - the Slim Pickens character, who just got plugged during a shootout on the hunt for Billy the Kid, is having a tearful final moment with his wife, and Bob singing about "mama, take this badge off of me/I can't use it anymore" fits seamlessly with the scene. (This link goes into a little greater depth about the song used within the film.) Taking the song out of context, however, the whole thing just seems...I dunno, maybe a bit much for a nominal pop single? After all, this song ended up on AM radio and was covered God knows how many times, and it's basically a man talking about burying his guns as he slips away into death to meet his Maker. Throw in the whole gospel-like harmonies and we're talking about one damn depressing song at its face.

Perhaps, then, what gives this song its everlasting fame (you could also argue this for "All Along The Watchtower", although that song's lyrics are as cryptic as this one's is direct) is its brilliantly simple chord arrangement, G and D (two of the most basic chords you can play on the guitar) with A minor 7 and C switching off from line to line. It's the sort of thing a beginner might strum while rooting for his first ever tune - Lord knows I've come up with the same simple arrangements in the past, like The Ramones with much less inclination to play punk or, you know, talent - and yet it completely and totally works, because it completely and totally sets a mood. Even if you stripped away the gentle band arrangement and the harmonies, those chords work on such a brutally elemental level that you can't help but just be utterly swept away by them. It's always a rare Dylan song where Dylan's musical sense stands toe to toe with his lyrical sense, but we have an example of that here; Dylan's powerful, simple phrases (and that chorus!) matched beautifully with those almost inevitable chords.

In a previous post during the Self Portrait run, I'd written about how Marcus had envisioned Bob writing the soundtrack to a Western or some such thing with that godforsaken album, and how he didn't really succeed (you know, due the album not being good and all). Not only is there something kind of amusing about the fact that Bob eventually did get his mug into a Western after all (which surely must have appealed to him on any number of levels), but he also managed to write the perfect Western song, one that could have been easily slotted into any number of the revisionist Westerns that, ironically, Sam Peckinpaugh ushered in with The Wild Bunch and Clint Eastwood apotheosized with Unforgiven. Every one of those damned movies has a scene where one of the heroes dies in heroic fashion after heroically getting himself shot in heroic battle, and every single one of those scenes would've been vastly improved by Bob's sonorous voice intoning about that long black cloud coming down. Of all of Bob's achievements in his career, I bet if you pointed this out to him, this would be one he'd really be proud of.

So there are two versions of this song I'd like to say a few words about. The first, which I'm sure some of you have heard, is the Guns 'n Roses version, one of their last singles and a tack-on to Use Your Illusion II. Now, I assume most of you can guess in advance what I'll say about it, and I'll temper that by noting that I actually like their version of "Live and Let Die"; in some ways, it actively improves upon the original (most notably in the fact that the reggae bit is much, MUCH less awkward). Where their version of that song and this kind of split apart, though, is that while "Live and Let Die" has an inherent silliness to it (forget that it's a Bond theme, which carries its own goofy pomposity; have you ever LISTENED to "Live and Let Die"? There's a reason Wings gets its share of mockery, you know) that Guns 'n Roses both sort of went along with (because anthem-era Guns 'n Roses has its own inherent silliness) and punctured with the POWER OF ROCK, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"'s pretentious bent is tempered by the fact that it's a really, tremendously good song. And GnR's version, with it's ill-considered musical breakdown at the end, guitars turned all the way up to 11, and Axl Rose doing every single Axl Rose thing that annoys the hell out of everybody that isn't a slavish devotee, manages to suck every single bit of what makes "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" special out of the tune. That actually deserves kudos, in a way.

The second version (which is jumping the gun a bit) is the Tour '74 version, where Dylan and the Band incorporate this most solemn of anthems into the "Bob Dylan Good Time Jamboree" aesthetic that Before the Flood so badly represents. Given the numerous excesses of this particular tour - I'm listening to this version now, and if there was any way to cut the goddamn Garth Hudson synthesizers out, I would have already done it - the version we got on the official album is relatively understated, featuring one of Bob's best vocals on said album (I always love how he sings "ground" and "shoot") and rather glorious backing vocals from Manuel et al. And, with the obvious exception of Robertson spraying mini-solos around with his typical bonhomie, the guitars are scaled back pretty well, far more so than for something like "Lay Lady Lay" on the same tour. In short, the Band does the song fair justice, and on a tour marked for performances that one wishes involved some restraint in the right places, we get a pretty good glimpse of how good the tour could be when that restraint was properly used.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #160: George Jackson

And, without the slightest bit of warning, Bob Dylan had returned to the forum of protest songs. Cut just over two months after the death of the Soledad Brother in a prison shootout (and released a mere week after the song's recording, a rather amazing turnaround if you stop to think about it), one of the few songs from Dylan's first period in the wilderness was a throwback to his acoustic days, as though the stern young man of the Times cover had inhabited his body for a couple of weeks until he could get the song cranked out before heading back to from whence he came. There happens to be two versions of the song - a mellow full-band version with the guys he'd recorded his Greatest Hits Vol. II songs with, and a solo acoustic version, just Bob and his harmonica, like the good ol' days. It is the solo acoustic version that I'm linking to, simply because it makes the most sense; until "Hurricane", after all, that was just Bob's metier.

I feel such a weird sense of unreality when I hear "George Jackson" - not because it's a bad song or because it's too weird or anything like that, but more because it doesn't really feel like it should exist, if that makes sense. I'm not saying that the life of a family man would automatically erase the part of Bob's mind that cared about humanity (any more than I would say that his crazy years as a rock star would do so); it's just that...I mean, of all the times, after all that had happened, that the killing of a Black Panther in prison would be the tipping point for Bob to finally pick back up his "outrage" pen seems a bit odd. And I'm not downplaying the historical significance of George Jackson at all (my brother was rather deeply moved by Soledad Brother, and it's a fair guess that he was not the only one), just feeling a bit bemused about the whole thing. After all, when MLK and Robert Kennedy were gunned down, Bob was baking bread and teaching his children the ABCs or what have you. It's just funny how these things work, I guess.

As for the actual song itself...I mean, there's not really much I can say about it, to be honest. It's not the best protest song Bob ever wrote (in the loosest sense of the word, I'd say "Hard Rain" qualifies; if you're talking more straightforward, probably "Blowin' in the Wind", forgive the cliched answer), nor is it the worst (I'll leave that answer as an exercise for you, the reader). What makes it a step down from some of his truly great songs isn't the fact that he knocked the song out in such a short span of time - Lord knows he's written his fair share of songs in a short period of time. The reason, then, is more just the fact that the song doesn't really reach the same poetic heights of something like "Hard Rain", opting instead to be more straightforward in its disgust at Jackson's treatment and sudden death (to the point where we get Bob's first ever recorded profanity!). And that's not necessarily a bad thing - after all, it seems a lot to ask for Bob to try and reach those heights - so much as it's just a limiting thing you have to get used to. The Bob that wrote those amazing protest songs had been long gone, even by then. The new Bob, the one trying to piece together a brand new writing style, was never going to write "Hard Rain" again.

And, I think, that's entirely what Bob had in mind. "George Jackson" was never really meant to be anything other than exactly what it was - Bob speaking his mind about a major issue of the moment, committing something to tape that could be immediately processed, not giving a hoot about posterity or what future generations would think about the song from a creative standpoint. After all, songs like these aren't really meant to be creative masterpieces, but rallying points, ways for outrage to be properly channeled and given an actual voice. In that sense, "George Jackson" does very well succeed.
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #159: When I Paint My Masterpiece

This is a post that, in a way, almost writes itself. If ever there was a Dylan track that would qualify as my all-time sneaky favorite, it would be "When I Paint My Masterpiece", one of those songs that always seems to slip through the cracks when people talk about Bob's classics (some might append that classification to "Watching The River Flow", I think). What I really love about the song is just how laid-back Bob sounds on it, like he really is singing about chilling out in Rome and thinking about when he finally finishes his life's work. One almost wishes that it was true - that instead of being in upstate New York all this time, he'd actually been crossing the Continent by train, suitcase in hand, living it up with a big Derek Flint grin on his face. And the musicians help set that mood from the start, Leon Russell's piano leading us into a bevy of wry guitar solos and a gently propulsive rhythm. One imagines that this is the sound of Bob not taking himself all too seriously (much like the Christmas album, as a matter of fact - what is "Must Be Santa" if not one of his all-time great pisstakes?), and it's hard not to want him to do that more often.

Much has been made about how this song and "Watching The River Flow" are musical twins in that they depict Bob at his creative low point (well, until the mid-80s, of course), fumbling around for ways to relight his creative muse, none of them working until the ultimate torch arrived in the form of Bob's crumbling marriage. What occasionally seems to be lost in that assessment is the fact that both of the songs that are seemingly about Bob's fallow creative period are, of course, pretty darn good on their own, some of the best stuff that Bob released in this decade. And, rather amusingly, both of the songs manage to attack the subject in roughly the same way, with the musical equivalent of a good-natured shrug of the shoulders. If Bob really has lost his creative muse, he's doing a pretty darn good job of showing us that he could care less.

If there is one obvious difference between the songs, though, it would be the fact that Bob puts us in two different locales (and maybe even mindsets) in the two separate songs. "Watching The River Flow"'s narrator is basically all by himself, sitting in a cafe and staring out at the Mississippi or whatever rushing on by - there's something almost Zen-like in the way he talks about how the river keeps rolling along, no matter what happens - and just musing about how funny the ol' human race can actually be. In "When I Paint My Masterpiece", on the other hand, we're deposited right smack in the middle of some European vacation, a rush of memories coursing through the narrator's brain as he moves from country to country looking for the next big adventure and getting a kick out of, you guessed it, how funny the ol' human race can actually be. That the song still manages to retain its laid-back tone is really something; Bob's telling us a story about how strange his life is without being able to write that one masterpiece he's been waiting on (then again, most artists always feel this way), and yet it feels so casual, like he's relating this tale into a tape recorder sitting poolside in Malibu. It's a relaxed song about a hectic subject, which is always fun.

One is tempted, especially when doing a project like the one I'm embarking on, to speculate about whether or not Bob really did miss that hectic life at the time. Now, real life kind of answers that question all by itself, as Bob slowly worked his way back into the limelight before Tour '74 re-established him as one the biggest rock stars in the world. But that was a gradual process, one that went from recording new material to appearing in a movie to putting together a brand new album for a brand new record label. And yet, in 1971, there was still no real indication that Bob was ever going to go back out on the road, or release something like Planet Waves, or be anything other than a father and a husband. All people really had to speculate on were rumors, innuendo, and then these songs. And while most people tend to think of them as Bob talking about how his muse had done a runner, it's also possible to speculate on that second song, on Bob writing about the hustle and bustle of a life on the run, walking up the Spanish Steps and feeling history below his feet, and missing it just a little bit. The world was not as easy to reach then as it was now, and one imagines there were some nights in New York where our man Bob was getting just a touch antsy.

And, soon enough, that hustle and bustle would be back in Dylan's life. As much as we think about how hectic and crazy 1965-66 were for Bob, I don't think enough attention gets paid to just how wild the mid-70s were for the man; after all, for all of Bob's religious studies after he broke his neck, he didn't become a full-on Christian, for Pete's sake. After all, between Planet Waves and Slow Train Coming, Bob released a slew of albums that ranged from "quite good" to "absolute classics" (including what might very well be his masterpiece), embarked on four massive tours (including a World Tour that led to his voice's irrevocable damage and that aforementioned conversion), and forcefully re-injected himself into the lifestyle that a rock star of his stature tends to lead. That's a hell of a lot for one man to do. You wonder, though, if Bob would have had it any other way.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #158: Tomorrow Is A Long Time

I've always wondered what it was about "Tomorrow is a Long Time" that appealed to Elvis Presley so much, to the point where he would record his own version for one of his crappy movie soundtracks (the phrase "crappy" can apply to both the movie and the soundtrack, in general). Quite frankly, I wonder why Elvis would bother with a Dylan song at all; after all, this is a guy who used to joke when he had bad breath that "it feels like Bob Dylan's been sleeping in my mouth". But we have Elvis' version of this song nonetheless, and it's a surprisingly good version, a down-home Mississippi Delta touch attached to the tune, Elvis putting in a pretty decent vocal performance (although there are moments where he does something with his voice that reminds me why I don't like him more than I think I ought to, if that makes sense), a casual take on a love song that succeeds because it's so darn casual and laid back. You'd never have thought to turn the song into a crawling blues track, but Elvis and his producers did, and they get kudos for that.

Funny enough, the Elvis version is probably the reason why Bob chose to record the song in a bluesier style for the New Morning sessions, a version that would be left in the vaults yet again. Listening to the song, you can definitely tell that Bob had that version in mind, both in the literal (the slower, more blues-like arrangement, with a pedal steel doing some nice work) and in the more abstract (the "ah-ooh" backing vocals reminiscent of the Jordanaires, the somewhat amateurishly picked solos), although Bob fleshes things out a little more with his full New Morning band behind him. One presumes that this version was never going to have a shot at making the album - especially considering how much more jazz-influenced the official version would end up being - so listening to it can feel more academic than anything else, like it's Bob just having a goof in the studio before he got to "One More Weekend" or whatever. All the same, it's a fun goof, a nice little window into Bob's mind, and a weirdly fitting tribute to Elvis that works just as well as "Went To See The Gypsy" does.

And yet, for somebody like me that has such great affection for the Greatest Hits II version, recorded for what was supposed to be Bob Dylan In Concert way back in 1963, there's something kind of blasphemous about these bluesy recordings, like Elvis and Dylan are taking something chaste and pure and slapping some mud on it. That isn't to say that I don't like those versions, or that there's something wrong with turning a tune into a blues number; it's more that the original version, so beautifully downcast and gentle, so full of quiet wistfulness, is probably best served in its original state, a gently picked acoustic guitar the only accompaniment to Bob's gorgeous lyrics (some of his best of the acoustic era). It makes a kind of sense that this song, like "Mama, You Been On My Mind", was consigned to the vaults upon its release; both songs are as direct in their emotion as any Bob has ever recorded, and maybe Bob didn't want anybody to get the wrong idea.

Of all the emotions that Bob has managed to capture in his lyrics - anger, disdain, happiness, joy, pain, agony - the one that he never really quite gets to is loneliness; he's sung about isolation, but that's not quite the same thing. For whatever reason, we never get to hear much about the great loneliness that Bob must have felt all throughout his life, both in the literal sense (the 1966 tour springs to mind), and in the mental (that mind of his keeping people away by mere virtue of his almost crushing genius); we know so much about Bob in his public life that any glimpse at the private Bob, no matter how fleeting, is as treasured as gold. And that is what makes "Tomorrow is a Long Time" so valuable, because we get a very small glimpse at Bob singing about loneliness, even in the context of a love song, as he waits for his true love to be back with him and spins off words that tell us just how hard that wait can be. But, to me, what really sums up the loneliness of the song (more so than the lyrics, which I think I will get some disagreement over, and I don't blame you) is Dylan's performance, one of his most brutally direct of his early days, a quiet emotion in his voice not even heard on his most well-known classics. I hear that song and I think of that young man, all by himself, singing about his beloved, and it's as heart-wrenching as anything I could imagine. And yet I cannot help but listen to it over and over again, because of that heartache, and because it's so beautiful in its sadness. There's plenty of that in Bob's catalog, but few songs touch that emotion as well as this one does.
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Bob Dylan Song #157: Watching the River Flow

My sincerest apologies to those of you that assumed my discussion of Greil Marcus' review of Self Portrait would cease with the "Alberta #2" post, but I found myself thinking of that album, and rather specifically the bit about Dylan's responsibilities to his audience, during my most recent listen to "Watching the River Flow", one of a handful of original songs Bob recorded between 1970 and 1974's Planet Waves. Listening to Dylan kick the tune off with those fateful words "What's the matter with me?/I don't have much to say", then talk about sitting on a beach somewhere and watching the inexorable progress of some random waterway, one can only assume that Marcus must have been livid. After all, compare Self Portrait, in which Bob makes what could be interpreted as a symbolic retreat from the arena, to this song, in which Bob straight up admits it to all of us. I dunno - were I in Marcus' shoes, I think I might be kinda pissed.

I bet Dylan thought of this, too. Maybe he didn't have Marcus on his mind per se (it's worth wondering if Bob, in 1971, actually knew who Greil Marcus WAS), but I like to think he had a little smile on his face as he penned the words to this song, dreaming up a surrogate Bob wandering some deserted coastline, finding that all night cafe on the beach, having a cup of joe, and staring at the water rushing by. More specifically, I think of those middle eights Bob conjured up, where he sees people disagreeing about God knows what (and he's right - it really DOES make you want to stop and read a book) and just shakes his head knowingly to himself. It was not all too long ago that Young Bob was out there disagreeing with people himself, first in the protest songs that he wrote, then in his views on how his music should sound, to the point where he found himself really shook (and, if some people are to be believed, crying) on that Newport stage. It would only stand to reason that Older and Wiser Bob would be able to write so wittily and intelligently about that.

"Watching the River Flow" would be a fun song if Dylan had picked up an acoustic and sang about his casual acceptance of what sounds like one bitch of a case of writer's block, but the song is made all the more fun by his studio band, who bring a touch of 70's AM rock to Dylan's palette of recording tricks. From the moment that guitar solo comes ripping out of your speakers, it's clear that Dylan's in a rakish mood, and the song boogies along at a nice bluesy clip, Leon Russell's pounding piano mixing well with more radio-friendly soloing and a bouncy bass line. Dylan, for his part, appears to be having a grand old time, barking out his vocals in that 70s voice I've always considered his best. One imagines that, in the hands of somebody like Badfinger, the song might have become an even bigger hit. Instead, it just barely missed the top 40, and ended up on a Columbia stopgap; given the laid-back nature of the song, that's probably how it should be anyway.

I always liked that Bob chose to start off his 2nd (and, remarkably, more essential) Greatest Hits collection with this song, an amusing admission of his current fallow period leading off a collection of songs that demonstrated just how amazing he was when all his creative juices were flowing. What's made Bob so fascinating, along with the music and the myths and the history and all that, is that you really can't pin any kind of mental process upon the man, no matter how hard we try to shoehorn him into our preconceived notions. The same man who has enough self-awareness to wink at his audience with this song had the somewhat puzzling naivete to think that his conversion to Christianity would be well-received when he took it on the road (well, perhaps; he probably knew people would be surprised, but I'm not sure he knew he'd whip up 1965-levels of invective). The same man who exhibited the rigid self-control of his days in the upstate New York woods as he cared for his family and grew closer to his wife essentially fell to pieces on the 2nd leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, drinking himself into constant stupors as his marriage crumbled around him. And the same man who released some of the greatest albums ever recorded, leaving only a paucity of worthy tracks in the vaults in favor of legendary classics, essentially consigned three or four of his best songs of the 1980s to outtake status when putting together Infidels, maybe the most disappointing moment in his canon. That's all human nature, of course, to be that inconsistent; but it's human nature on a grand scale, and that's always interesting.

"Watching the River Flow", in its own way, is an encapsulation of part of Dylan's human nature, and a part that brings him closer to us. Having made mention in the previous post of the elusiveness of creativity, it's funny to hear a song where Bob directly addresses that elusiveness, fully admitting that the process is beyond his understanding ("What's the matter with me?") and not giving a damn anyway. It's kind of rare to see Dylan engaging his audience as directly (relatively speaking) as he does here, and it's all the better that he does it in such an amusing way. Who knows, maybe even Greil Marcus had to have been okay with that.
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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #318: Mama, You Been On My Mind

Okay, so.

I had a special post all typed out, I really did. I was going to do one of those "author interviewing himself" conceits, where I asked myself these pertinent questions about where I was in my life, why I'd put this blog on its longest hiatus yet, and whether or not I was really prepared to see this through to the bitter end (I mean, look at that post title - I'm not even halfway to reaching THIS song, let alone the last one!). But, to be quite honest, nobody needs to read all that, especially in light of all the emotional gushing that will soon commence in the post proper. So I've instead condensed said special post into three questions and answers:

Q. Where the hell were you?
A. It's like John Lennon said - "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

Q. Why this song?
A. Because the time to write about it was right, for me at least. Normal chronological order will resume after this post - I just wanted to get this out of my system. If this somehow seems like a cheat, I apologize. I fully acknowledge that this post is the rare one that's more for me than anybody else.

Q. Will you continue this project?
A. Yes. I don't know how regular I'll keep things, but I will do my level best to maintain at least some sort of schedule. That anybody reads this at all is amazing, and it's at the point now that I want people to keep reading and to look forward to what I do. It means more than you could ever know, believe me.

And so back I go into the maelstrom. Just a heads up - this gets into some REALLY emo shit. If you're not prepared or that sort of thing doesn't suit you, I suggest you come back later in the week. Trust me.

Second heads up: this baby is LONG. Again, don't say I didn't warn you.


I once had a girl
Or should I say
She once had me...

- John Lennon


When people (up to and including myself) talk about how Bob Dylan's lyrics are "poetic", I feel like the vast majority of those people are referring to Dylan's more out-there lyrics, stuff like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Gates of Eden" that push the envelope of what was previously considered to be acceptable things to sing while simultaneously strumming a guitar and/or being backed by a band of musicians. Which makes sense - it's not so much that Dylan was doing things like messing with time signatures or fiddling with the verse/chorus/verse dynamic (his deeply ingrained musical instincts probably would not let him do this), as much as he was pushing the boundaries of what you can do with words, how you can arrange them in ways that impact others emotionally without directly attempting to ENGAGE them emotionally, and of the subject matter that people can sing about. And I think that many of us engage poetry in that same way; we've grown accustomed enough to the works of Eliot and Plath and Ginsburg and Sexton and so on that we think of poetry not as something straightforward, but as a way to push the boundaries of both the spoken and written English language, something that takes us to the further edges of what we can do with that language, for better or for worse.

I bring all this up not because I believe I'm telling you all something you don't already know, but because it's elucidating for me in general to think about things in other ways. After all, not all poetry bothers to push the envelope, or to do something entirely different from tradition, and yet that poetry can still hit on an emotional level. Think of something like "Dulce et Decorum Est", or "To His Coy Mistress", neither of which go crazy with the metaphors or fuck with accepted rhyme schemes or anything, but both hit on an emotional level while bending words into something beautiful (even in the ugliness of World War I, in the former's case). And I'm sure it doesn't REALLY bear stating, but you can apply that to Dylan's less wildly imaginative lyrics, songs from his acoustic era or from something like Planet Waves, where Dylan can keep himself firmly grounded in the language that you and I speak every day (or, sometimes, wish we could) and still make us go "wow, that was something else".

And, to me, the quintessential example of Dylan's genius in this regard is the first verse of "Mama, You Been On My Mind", one of the greatest songs he wrote and never released on an album. I'm reprinting it here simply because I cannot help myself:

Perhaps it's the color of the sun cut flat
And covering these crossroads I'm standing at,
Or maybe it's the weather, or something like that,
But mama, you been on my mind.

To me, at least, I cannot think of any better way to try and explain what it is about love that cannot be explained, and to put something tangible on a feeling that, so very often, eludes our grasp. We all know that often something as innocuous as a song on the radio or seeing an ad for a restaurant can bring back memories both good and bad (I had one such moment last night, as a matter of fact - damn you, Van Morrison!), but we can find ourselves forgetting that sometimes it doesn't even take THAT much to trigger our memory banks, and sometimes we find ourselves drifting back to past beloved entirely of our own accord, almost like an acid flashback or something. Dylan manages to capture both sides in four truly amazing lines, reaching both to the specificity of an image that reminded him of somebody, and to the generality of a mood that hits you when you don't expect it. It's really something that I cannot fathom.

I had a conversation once with one of my friends, in which I was attempting to describe why exactly it was I felt a certain way about somebody else. I said that I could make a list of all the reasons why I was enamored, from the more obvious physical aspects to the way that she engaged me on an intellectual level to the fact that she had a fondness for things that I, too, had a fondness for. But, ultimately, the reason I felt that certain way about that somebody was because I simply did. I mean, that sort of thing is more animal than human to begin with (which I'll get to in greater detail), and on a gut level it really just comes down to synapses firing in your brain in ways you could not possibly imagine. But, us being who we are, we find ways to justify those firings of our synapses, and we turn what would be simple nature into something deeper and more meaningful. As I'd written in a previous post, the feeling tends to come before the rational; first comes love, then you sort of have to fill in the blanks. But filling in the blanks makes us who we are.

What I love about that first verse of "Mama, You Been On My Mind" is that Bob never bothers to delve into that conundrum at all. Of course, given the constraints of songwriting and such there just wasn't enough room anyway, but it's still impressive to see Bob condense such a markedly difficult emotional issue into a short gut punch of a verse and then immediately move on, secure in the knowledge that we all know what he's talking about. And we all do, of course - much like that feeling you can only express in French where you could've sworn something happening to you has already happened, we all know what it means to remember something from our past with both a meaningful prompt and with no prompt at all. We all just can't sum that feeling up the same way Bob can.


If I were to be brutally honest with myself, one of my great failings as a human being is that I have the potential to be an utterly selfish prick on an emotional level; you know, the old "look out for number 1" thing. I can be totally willing to sever a personal relationship (friend or otherwise) with a female at the drop of a hat if I think that relationship is causing me hurt, and I'm pretty sure I could do it without too much effort. And, in the same honest vein, one of the things that is pretty good about me as a human being is that I am aware of that selfishness potential, and that I deal with it in much the same way that people deal with quarantined viruses. After all, once you've connected with somebody on any meaningful level, even if it is just plain ol' friendship, you have a responsibility for that connection, to maintain it and even try to make it grow, and to cut it in half just because of your own base feelings is a pretty boorish thing to do. It's sad that I need to remember that, but I thank my lucky stars that I can, and that I can put aside my own bullshit to have actual meaningful friendships with the opposite sex. It would be a real black mark on me as a person if I couldn't.

One of the hardest things to deal with is when somebody you have feelings for harbors those same feelings for somebody else. This, again, is not something I think you all don't know. What is even harder is to feel, if not happiness for that person, at least a sort of Zen acceptance, a security that you can dispense with the hurt that that knowledge brings. It, like so much of human personality, is an acquired skill; still, having that skill is almost astonishingly important, if only for our own peace of mind. To be able to wish somebody well is nice; to wish somebody well and actually mean it is some next level shit. I will fully admit that I struggle with that skill on a daily basis (and it's much harder these days), but I'm well aware that the person I'm struggling with would appreciate that I'm even making the effort. If I couldn't, I might as well give up and go live in a cabin in the woods.

When Dylan sings "I don't even mind who you'll be waking with tomorrow", it is hard not to marvel at that moment. It is both the most devastating moment in the song, and somehow the most uplifting at the exact same time. I don't need to really tell you what's devastating about it on one level; I still remember being told by the woman I love that she was moving in with her boyfriend, and what a horrible crushing blow that was for me. And on another level, the one where you've reached that kind of acceptance (or resignation, as the case may be), the line takes on an even more devastating effect. But uplifting? Yes, I truly do believe that. That line, and the sentiment behind that, is a statement from a man that truly believes what he's saying, that does not care that his beloved will be waking up in the bed of somebody else, because she's still part of who he is, no matter what. And that's uplifting in the sense that so often we tend to try to cut the hurt out of us, rather than attempting to understand that hurt and make it work for us. When you lose somebody in that way, a piece of you gets torn out, and it's all too easy to let that piece disappear without ever trying to replace it. It really is better to keep that piece where it is, if only for the memory.

Not to immediately bring things back down, but I've often thought about the things that separate us human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom, usually because there's far more crossover than we would like to admit. Even love, our greatest attribute as a human race in so many ways, can be explained on a molecular level, where the general idea of "attraction" has a lot more to do with our hormones than with rational thought. I mean, it makes sense, of course; even if you discount all the scientific crap, just think about how often relationships tend to fail. We all can understand the idea behind wanting to knock it out with somebody else - it's when you get to shit like meeting parents and thinking about looking for an apartment together that things become murky and complicated. Fill in the blanks, remember. We don't always do the best job of that. And that's why love isn't always the greatest thing (as Damon Albarn once sang); the actual emotion itself can be found amongst jungle cats or what have you, and they don't have to worry about how two sets of friends would interact at a bar on Friday night.

So, to me at least (and perhaps this is just my own slightly jaundiced view at work), what really does separate us from animals and makes us something special is that we can be hurt by love. After all, you never hear of an orangutan crying and listening to Morrissey records, or of a house cat trying to win another house cat back by playing "In Your Eyes" on a boom box, and so on. I know how silly that sounds, and I even kinda did that on purpose, but the general idea is that we are the only race for whom the romantic-based rejection of another member of our species hurts us on an emotional level, one that we have to intellectualize in order to properly deal with it. We can intellectualize love, of course, but on a gut level we know why it exists and how it really works. I don't think we have that same gut level with rejection; trying to make sense of it the best way that we can, whether through hurt, rage, acceptance, and so on, is an entirely different being altogether. In a way, it's even a beautiful thing - the fact that we cannot simply dismiss a mate walking away, that we have to put things together in our mind and compartmentalize it in order to function at all, says a lot about just how important that really is to us. It's an idea that always strikes me as sad, and as profound. Funny how those two words so often mean the same thing.


Why don't we ever hear more about who Bob's singing about in this song? So much about Dylanology (of which I grudgingly include this humble little blog) centers around the various women that have populated Bob's life and how he has worked his relationships (both the good and the bad times - more bad than good, rather unfortunately) into his songs. Joan Baez, Suze Rotolo, Sara Lowndes - we always find ourselves reading the tea leaves, looking for those faces, almost to the point where you need to stop and just ask yourself, well, why? Why do we bother? Is there really a point? And, as a corollary, how has a song THIS nakedly emotional and full of heartache slipped through the cracks?

Creativity, like so much of our human experience, is an ethereal concept. I mean, that's pretty obvious (nobody's selling "creativity juice" at the local supermarket), but it's also something that we feel like we need to deal with, even though we don't know how. William Goldman, as great a screenwriter that has ever lived, stated that he has no idea where his creativity comes from, but he lived in a never-ending fear of simply waking up one day to find that his spark has deserted him forever, never to return. And that's somebody who legitimately has/had that spark, who has written some of the most enduring motion pictures ever made. For the rest of us average punters, the idea of creativity on that level is even harder to fathom, like attempting to wrap our minds around Foucault's Pendulum without the requisite Ph.D. in astrophysics. Creativity, in that sense, is almost certainly something legitimately scary, a mutant power that taunts us even while astonishing us when others harness that power to create amazing works of art. Like a lot of the Big Concepts, it is something that totally eludes us.

And that, I think, plays into why people so often look for Dylan's paramours in his music. The concept of the muse, as old as it is, is one that a lot of us can wrap our minds around. Hell, the whole concept was almost certainly conceived so that the ancient Greeks and Romans COULD wrap their minds around something as astounding as creativity, an otherworldly explanation for why people could write poems or music or whatever that fit in quite well with the whole "multitude of gods" thing they had going on. But even today the idea still has its place, mainly because its base concept is something we can get behind. Surely it was the love/hate of another woman that drove Dylan to write those masterpieces, and nothing else, right? I mean, it's kind of a reductive concept, no matter how true it is (if "Ballad in Plain D" is NOT about Suze Rotolo, then Bob has some serious explaining to do), but it's still one that's easy for us to grasp. It's annoying as hell, but I can understand it.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to this song, and why nobody has made an effort (or maybe they have, and I've willfully ignored it) to tie "Mama, You Been On My Mind" to any number of women that have been in Bob's life. I mean, it's not like you couldn't make a very easy case, given the time frame the song was written in and so forth. But I kind of like the fact that the song has sort of been left untouched in that sense, that it's not scrutinized in the same way that some of Dylan's more famous songs have been, and that it's mainly been left to stand on its own considerable artistic and lyrical merits. It lends the song a little additional weight that occasionally gets denied from the Webermans of the world trying to read between the lines. For a song this good, that's incredibly appreciated.


I've said that "Like A Rolling Stone" is my favorite Bob Dylan song, maybe my favorite song by anybody ever, and that's not going to change. But if I had to choose the song that meant the most to me on an emotional level, the song that's nearest and dearest to my heart without bringing in any intellectual considerations, it would surely be "Mama, You Been On My Mind". I mean, I love the song on an intellectual level, of course - it's as perfect an example as you could ask for of purely economical songwriting, of communicating an astounding amount of deep feelings and ideas on a personal scale, performed in Bob's straightforward manner that manages to suggest the well of emotions the song carries without needing to dip into it just to score a few extra points. A lot of Young Bob's genius is summed up in this song, and that's something I can truly appreciate.

But, as you might expect, it's what Bob is actually singing about that gives the song such heft in my eyes. Speaking as somebody that was in love with somebody for a VERY long time, I can't help but identify with every word Bob sings in this song; memories being brought forth just by the weather or something, asking her not to be upset by my frame of mind, not minding who she wakes up with, and that final stinging verse where Bob asks the mystery woman of the song if she could ever see herself as clearly and as vividly as he, himself, carrying her memory deep inside of his cerebral cortex. It's such a powerful moment, and one so evocative of what it means to not just love somebody, but to care about them as well - this notion that we can see them better than they can see themselves. There is great truth to that; why else would we talk about our problems with our friends than because we need a voice that's not our own to help us puzzle out what's going on with us? And it's moments like that where I find myself utterly swept away, hearing somebody explain the pain and emotion I'm feeling better than I ever could. Everything about what art is, and why art matters, crystallizes for me when I hear this song.

I don't presume to suggest that I know why art matters, for the record; I'm simply not that smart. I will say, though, that I have an idea. The concept of the muse, that I briefly touched on before, can seem quite silly on its face, but it does serve an important purpose - it helps us make tangible something that is rather clearly not. And for people in general, just the idea that we can make SOMETHING that we have trouble understanding a little more easy to wrap our minds around is truly important indeed. I mean, just take a second and think about the nature of the cosmos, and infinity, and what that actually means. Thinking about that without a shit ton of postgraduate work, a massively high IQ, or a pharmacy's worth of illegal drugs is nigh impossible. But we've all been to a planetarium, we've all seen the stars in the sky and heard about white dwarfs and black holes and sound bouncing out millions of miles away and so on, and that sort of helps us understand a little better and come a little closer to touching what seems so very far away. We need that in our lives.

And I think we can agree that the whole idea of art, at least on a level beyond "I want to watch guns go boom and cars explode" or "I'm going to read this romantic novel about forbidden love with the guy with a six-pack of abs on the cover", is to help us understand what we cannot, or what we find hard to deal with. Why do you think there are so many damn songs about us getting our hearts broken? Because we all know what it's like to get our hearts broken, and we so very rarely know how to deal with an emotion so powerful and gut-wrenching. And it's that knowledge that allows us to identify with music, or books, or movies; the knowledge that, even if they don't specifically know why we're hurting or why we're happy or angry or whatever emotion it is we're feeling, the artists we love can channel THEIR own hurt or anger or happiness into what they create, and that gets filtered to us on our own levels. It's probably a stretch to say that artists understand us, but there is enough universality in who we are as humans that artists, in attempting to understand themselves and what they're feeling, tend to land on our issues as well. It's rather convenient how that works.

We all have moments in our lives where we feel that we're all alone, and that nobody understands us and what we're going through. That's often nonsense (there's only so much we as humans can go through, really), and yet it's such a strong feeling, simply because nobody ever has the same experience in the same way. To have something in my life that helps sort out that feeling, whether it's a good friend or a great book, is impossible to overstate in terms of importance. And, at the most basic level, I'm happy that I can cue up this song, hear a much younger Bob Dylan (a man younger than I am now when he recorded the track) singing about a mindset I know all too well, and say to myself "you know...Bob Dylan understands".
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